June 28, 2008

Wall•E (06/28/08)

Lettergrade: B-

If I felt like breaking things down this way, I'd give the first half of Wall•E an "A" for its visual beauty, the masterful use of music and sound-design, and one of the most unusual and engaging narrative structures I've seen in any animated movie in recent memory. Essentially, it's a lonely robot wordlessly wandering around a decimated Earth that had become so commercialized and polluted that humans had to abandon it.

That said, I would give a solid "meh" to the second half of the movie, wherein our hero robot meets up with the surviving members of the human race, and... well, a lot of familiar plays from the Pixar formula book start bubbling up. Now this being Pixar, the second half, when assessed on its own merits, is still very good, but it just cranks my wank a little that it follows an opening segment that's so promising and original.

What balls for an animated movie (from Disney, no less!) to take a strong stand against extreme consumerism like this! And what a crushing disappointment in the last part of the film when it does what it can to soften the blow with the thin, unconvincing message that the effects of mankind's greed, excess, and disregard for the environment are all reversible.

June 21, 2008

Kung Fu Panda (06/21/08)

Lettergrade: B+

Kung Fu Panda is a beautifully animated, skillfully-told, CG family adventure movie. This flies in face of the usual output from DreamWorks Animation, which traditionally includes a lot of dumbed-down, pop-culture reference heavy junk like Bee Movie, Madagascar, and the first and third Shreks. Although Panda follows the same tried-and-true formula as those movies (take a popular celebrity and anthropomorphize his persona into some lovable fuck-up from the animal kingdom), something about it actually works this time.

The philosophy spouted by the geriatric Turtle who oversees the warrior clan feels wise and meaningful... not wafer-thin as if the screenwriters merely copied it off the take-out menu from the Kung Pao Bistro while struggling to meet a deadline. The character animation is detailed and rich, the action scenes are vibrant and exciting, and Jack Black as the Panda is likable and endearing. There's a lot to like about this movie, and its a giant leap forward for the studio.

June 19, 2008

Get Smart (06/19/08)

Lettergrade: C+

The original Get Smart! TV show, as conceived by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was not a send-up of any specific movie or character, but of the seemingly endless stream of spy shows that populated network television in the 60s. WFLD in Chicago reran it twice a day when I was a kid, and mysteriously it was one of the few shows that my father, who tended to think that most television was bullshit, would actually sit down and watch.

In it, Don Adams played agent Maxwell Smart of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., a top secret governmental agency charged with the task of countering the cold-war efforts of Russia's K.A.O.S.. The trick, of course, was that he was also a complete idiot who fell ass-backward into success each week. This new Get Smart movie, starring Steve Carell in the Adams role, places Smart in a "James Bond light" style spy-flick of the 90s and today. In doing so, it makes for an enjoyable action-comedy that stays in keeping with the spirt of the show while not busting its cinematic nuts to recreate it.

A perusal of RottenTomatoes.com will reveal that the movie has taken some critical heat for approaching the material like this, but I personally feel it was the right way to go. Adaptations of TV programs can fall into one of two major traps: They can adhere to the show closely and risk being a hollow, overly-reverential echo of its source material (as seen in those fucking horrifying Flintstones movies and in shit like Starksy And Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard), or they can get so far away from the original idea that you have to wonder how the original title still applies (like in the bizarrely conceptual Bewitched remake). Oddly, Get Smart follows in the tradition of really good adaptations like The Untouchables and The Fugitive in that the filmmakers simply kept elements from the series that they liked, but primarily focused on functioning as a movie first and as a TV adaptation second. The loving nods to the show reawakened some fond (if fuzzy) memories for me, but at the same time I appreciated that the movie doesn't depend purely on nostalgia in order to work.

Get Smart also revises Max's origin story a bit. In the movie, he's a skilled analyst who aspires to be a field agent, but is not promoted until a security breach reveals the identities of C.O.N.T.R.O.L.'s operatives to the international community. He's paired with the seasoned Agent 99 (the ever-fetching Anne Hathaway) and sent to Russia to track down some loose nukes. It's interesting that Carell's Maxwell Smart is actually a very intelligent guy who stumbles through things due to inexperience, over-zealousness, and bad luck more than incompetence. As wonderful as Don Adams' Smart could be at times, the show never suggested that he was learning much from his constant fuck-ups. While that made for some damn fine television, I'm skeptical that it would play well when expanded to a feature's length and especially with someone other than Adams in the role.

The plot isn't terribly sophisticated as far as spy movies go, but it is plausible enough to hold water: A key thing that a lot of parody movies seem to miss. My theory is that even if it's supposed to be a "stupid" movie, everything still needs to revolve around a worthwhile plot. The one weird note that the movie strikes centers around Hathaway's character getting emotional about some recent plastic surgery she's had. That, combined with some lousy, melodramatic musical score by Trevor Rabin, make for the film's less successful moments.

The flick was directed by Peter Segal, who's film career began with The Naked Gun 33 1/3 in 1994. The Naked Gun series was often accused of ripping Get Smart! off back in the day, and as such Segal seems right at home with the material here. Astute viewers will even catch a few minor jokes he's recycled from flicks he made in the interim, particularly from the guiltily pleasureful Tommy Boy, a film which contains what is arguably David Spade's finest screen performance, and from another shame-based favorite: My Fellow Americans, featuring wonderful performances James Garner and Jack Lemmon as ex-Presidents on the run from the law.

Segal's got a great sense of how to showcase the comedic talents of his leads, and Get Smart is a stylish entry on his resume that is confident, amusing, and has a couple nifty action scenes. There have been funnier spy-comedies than this one, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours.

June 17, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (06/17/08)

Lettergrade: C-ish

Several reviews favorably compare The Incredible Hulk with last month's Iron Man, and declare it a great improvement over 2003's Hulk movie directed by Ang Lee. I thoroughly disagree on both counts: Iron Man earned way more respect from me as a smart, fun summer superhero flick than this picture, and although I know I'm in the extreme minority on this, I thought Ang Lee's Hulk was dark, sophisticated, and excellent in ways that this movie doesn't even get close to.

Alas, Lee's movie also didn't make enough money for Universal CEO Ron Meyer to wipe his dick with, so while it may be surprising that The Incredible Hulk was green-lit at all, it's perhaps not surprising that pretty much every facet of the 2003 movie has been discarded. Gone is Lee (replaced by The Transporter 2's Louis Leterrier), the original film's cast (with Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt stepping into the roles played by Eric Bana, Jennifer Connoly, and Sam Elliott in 2003), and the moody script dealing with childhood psychological damage and biological identity. What's left is a pretty straight-forward sci-fi action movie. It's alright, I suppose, but after stellar film adaptations of Marvel properties like X Men 2, Spider-Man 2, and this film's predecessor, its hard for me to get too excited about pictures which do exactly what you might expect them to do and not a whole lot more.

Curiously, The Incredible Hulk could be seen as a "sort of" sequel to Lee's film, but with a slightly rewritten origin story. At the end of the 2003 movie, Bruce Banner goes into hiding in South America, and that's where he is where this one starts. He's been living with the gamma-poisoning that causes him to Hulk-Out occasionally for about five years, and as he did in the 70s TV show starring Bill Bixby, Banner lives off-the-grid, desperately searching for a cure while being pursued by the insidious General 'Thunderbolt' Ross (Hurt). Regrettably absent is the character of David Banner, the Hulk's father, who was previously played by Nick Nolte in 2003. Since they were recasting everyone anyway, I was secretly hoping that Gary Busey would take over the role for this one, but I guess dreams don't always come true.

Nevertheless, despite the vague sense of continuity every now and again, the movie proceeds pretty much as an independent entity. General Ross manages to track Banner down (a big fucking surprise there), and enlists a new character played by Tim Roth to tranquilize and take him into custody. When Roth sees the Hulk, he wants to be genetically modified too for some inexplicable reason. I don't want to give away all the subtle plot nuance here, but the end of the movie has the surprisingly articulate "Abomination" squaring off against the Hulk in downtown NYC ala Superman squaring off against General Zod and company in downtown Metropolis at the end of Superman II. Also like Superman II, both cities look a hell of a lot like Toronto.

The best scenes in the movie center around Norton and Tyler's relationship, but they're not really enough to keep everything cookin'. Another bright point is Tim Blake Nelson, blissfully overacting as a helpful scientist who corresponds with Norton via a secure instant messenger while trying different solutions in his own lab.

Again, everything is pretty straight-forward and economical, and in a way that's part of the problem. There are three Hulk-based action scenes in the movie, but apart from the first one (which includes a nifty chase through Rio de Janerio) none of them are especially inspiring, nor are they particularly engrossing. Will the Hulk get caught or won't he get caught? Either way, it doesn't really make much difference.

I never read comic books with any frequency when I was younger, so perhaps my perspective is misguided here and this is exactly the kind of Hulk movie that Joe Marvel would want to see. I'll take the layered complexity of the Ang Lee movie. I completely understand why it didn't do well financially (and why the public, at large, seemed to generally despise it), but speaking for myself, I'd rather see a movie like that than something wafer-thin like this.